THE PSYCHOSOCIAL: BALD IS BEAUTIFUL (Except women with cancer don’t think so)
“My daughter was 7 at the time of my surgery and was devastated when she learned that with chemo therapy I was going to loose my hair. I had always been her role model, she always wanted to look just like me. She had been experimenting with my make-up secretly. She was worried that the whole world would know that I had cancer and I would be bald and everyone would laugh at me. Though this gave us a good chance to discuss the true meaning of beauty, I knew that I would not belong to those women who decide to go bald.”
– Piroska, 36
One of the most difficult effects of chemotherapy that women face is the loss of their hair. I have witnessed it professionally and personally, and it is devastating. Just the anxiety leading up to it is enough to make a person feel emotionally sick and very scared. Recently my male friend asked me, “Why is hair loss so tragic to a cancer patient when they are faced with their mortality?” My first instinct was that this, coming from a man (with a full head of hair), was a stupid question. Then it occurred to me that most people don’t really understand what it is like to lose their hair, especially at a time in their life when they are desperately trying to cling to normalcy and comfort.
Just in case you don’t know, here are some hard facts about hair loss for young women with cancer:
The hard truth: When you are sick with cancer and have hair, you can keep this fact a secret from the people in your life you would prefer not know you have cancer. Once your hair goes, you are outed. You are officially a cancer patient when you look in the mirror and in the eyes of others. This is reinforced by the loss of lashes and eyebrows too which can be even more difficult, and feel very alien.
Once your hair goes, you are outed.
Hair + beauty: Hair, femininity and body image are one and the same in our society. A woman who doesn’t choose to be bald often feels like less of a woman, and more vulnerable and visible during a difficult time. While it is perfectly acceptable for men to naturally bald, women are “supposed” to maintain a full head of hair for their whole lives. It is a societal beauty norm that is indicative of femininity and it gets perpetuated by many aspects of popular culture from shampoo commercials to hair extensions to children’s dolls. Interestingly, if you open a magazine right now, in the world of fashion this spring we are seeing bald models. Bald is trending and cool for about a minute, and is starting to be celebrated more in pop culture thanks to singers like Sinead O’Connor and actor Lupita Nyong’o for their beauty; and actors Sigourney Weaver and Charlize Theron for their bad-ass characters in Alien and Mad Max. But for a woman going through cancer, who doesn’t choose to go bald, there is nothing cool or rebellious or beautiful about it. It feels unjust and ugly.
Loss of control: When you are faced with a cancer diagnosis, your body is no longer your own. You are often poked, prodded, marked, and sometimes go under the knife to have things removed. Your sense of autonomy and control is stripped from you with the hope that you will come out on the other side cancer free. The loss of hair can sometimes mark the absolute loss of control and identity that someone facing cancer experiences, and it feels unjust. Almost like a cruel joke of someone, or in this case something, kicking you when you’re already down. And it is not just the initial loss, if and when hair grows back, it can be very different in texture and colour leaving a person at the mercy of a whole new hair routine. This is not the hair they had before, it is something new and they didn’t ask for that.
When you are faced with a cancer diagnosis, your body is no longer your own.
The expense: Most people don’t realize that hair loss can be an additional cost associated with treatment. Wigs, hats, scarves, and other head coverings cost money and serve more than just an aesthetic purpose: newly bald skin is extra delicate and needs to be protected from the elements, especially for those with weakened immune systems. While some insurance companies cover the cost of a wig, most people have to pay out of pocket for something once again they would rather not spend money on. Just to give you a sense, wigs can cost up to $2000 for real hair, and as low as $50 for synthetic.
The hairy truth: Needless to say, hair loss for women with cancer is more than just a minor inconvenience or side-effect of chemo. It’s everything. Like most losses, there is a period of adjustment and mourning so be patient. There is a reason why cancer programs like Look Good, Feel Better exist in order to help people cope and come to terms with how they look during cancer treatment, and how it makes them feel. Keep in mind that how a person approaches it varies and as much as they prepare for it, when it actually happens it’s shocking and difficult. Resist the urge to tell your loved one that “it’s just hair and it will grow back.” They know that. Instead, try to make them feel as beautiful and normal as possible by focusing on the things that matter. The fact that they are managing their disease as best they can while juggling many balls is an incredible feat, in and of itself and even if they think they look like a circus freak doing it, they know the people who love them don’t think so.
Resist the urge to tell your loved one that “it’s just hair and it will grow back”